Jeff’s Relics – Short Story
Sally walked up the hill behind her house, enjoying the absence of snow and her first exercise after the long winter. She was partly meandering, partly searching, and partly wishing the change of the seasons wouldn’t be so predictable.
March always hosted the contest between aging winter and fetal spring. One day would bring southwesterly breezes and flocks of northern-bound geese. The next would revert to blizzard conditions, and the ground would be white again. There was no doubt that eventually winter would recede and spring would display colorful victory banners over the hills and woodlands. Each year the battle was fought in earnest, as if there were no foreknowledge of its conclusion.
Sally’s son would soon be finishing school and leaving. She came here to escape the empty house. She always said the three girls put together did not make as much work as Jeff. It must have been more than a joke, for now that he was grown she found many unoccupied minutes. They were not as appealing as she thought they would be, so she spent a few of them thinking back over the years of Jeff’s childhood.
From the crest of the hill she could look over the house to see ruins of an ancient barn. It had never really been theirs, but Jeff had taken possession of it. It had waited over a hundred years for him to make it a castle, an outlaw hideout, a fort where Indian attacks were repulsed, the Constitution Hall of a two-member club, and a space ship to explore distant galaxies. In his fourteenth summer, strangers bought the dilapidated barn and tore it down. It had been nothing but an eyesore and a firetrap to them. Jeff watched silently out the window on that terrible day, while the walls came down. He was silent for a long time afterward.
He and his buddy salvaged some of the boards to build a fort in the woods, but it, too, lay in ruins now. They never used it much. By the time boys are old enough to construct a decent fort, they find themselves too mature for its fantasies.
Sally turned away and left the woods to stroll through a high pasture. From there she could look down on a sparkling run and the field alongside it where once Indians had made a village. There was nothing left to see, but the place held a fascination for Jeff. Each spring, after the fields had been plowed, Jeff would come home with his pockets full of muddy stone arrowheads and scraps of broken pottery. They had been a washday nuisance for Sally, but for Jeff were rare treasures.
There had been treasures of other sorts, too. He discovered where uncommon purple trillium grew and brought her bouquets. In season he knew where to go for wild strawberries. He had always been excited about his finds, eager to share them with her.
She was glad now she had allowed him the freedom of the hills. He’d had his share of injuries, but they always occurred at school, on vacation, or in the house. He had always been safe here in the hills, seeking only to wander and enjoy the secrets they revealed to him. They had belonged to him in a special way and he belonged to them. They had given him security and helped him grow strong. Now their timeless beauty called to him in a softer voice, drowned out by other allurements. They would always be here for him, always welcome him, but they could not hold him. They practiced a letting go that Sally both envied and feared.
She had not expected the letting go to be this difficult. She had raised him to be Godly and independent and he was. She was proud of that, but realized now that their relationship, like the path through the woods, was making an unexpected turn. Jeff no longer needed her, but she needed him in a real and curious way. He was the child of her youth the major undertaking of her life and he was slipping away.
The change seemed gradual and non-threatening at first: a night at a friend’s house, a week at camp, the school activities that occupied most of his time. Then there was his first job, his own car, and his first real girlfriend.
Many times he had given girls flowers, but never the purple trillium. Many times he had taken dates out to eat, but never wild strawberries. Those were special. Perhaps they wouldn’t have meant much to someone else, but to Sally they were of supreme importance. As his life became ever busier, increasingly aware of the great world beyond home, he left the friendly hills and their treasures behind.
Sally started walking back toward the house. Her daughters would be arriving home from school. There would be stories to hear, homework to supervise, and snacks to distribute. She looked forward to their commotion on this quiet day, but she stopped for a moment to look back up the hill. She had a feeling of incompleteness as if she had been looking for something and failed to find it. Something was not quite right. As if a familiar tree had disappeared from the skyline. In the disturbing silence, everything appeared to be in order. She moved toward the house, planning supper and the evening’s activities. She had to leave Jeff in God’s hands. She had to trust that she and his father had raised him the way God wanted them to.
Sally never found the strawberries or the purple trillium. She never found an arrowhead, but it was not needed. Back at the house hung Jeff’s case full of them. It had taken all his youth to accumulate them, and they were safe there. They were precious to her now because they had been precious to him. Relics of an ancient way of life that once had been and could never be again.